The Noble Eightfold Path

“The Fourth Noble Truth is that of the Way leading to the cessation of dukkha (dukkhanirodhagaminipatipada-ariyasacca). This is known as the ‘Middle Path’ (Majjhima Patipada), because it avoids two extremes: one extreme being the search of happiness through the pleasures of the senses, which is ‘low, common, unprofitable and the way of the ordinary people’; the other being the search for happiness through self-mortification in different forms of ascetism, which is ‘painful, unworthy and unprofitable’.. This Middle Path is generally referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path (Ariya-Atthangika-Magga), because it is composed of eight categories or divisions..” (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, first published 1959)

In Advayavada Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path is understood dynamically as an ongoing and fully autonomous, non-prescriptive, investigative and creative process of progressive insight, reflecting in human terms wondrous overall existence becoming over time, and is composed of (1) our very best (Pali: samma, Sanskrit: samyak) comprehension or insight followed by (2) our very best resolution or determination, (3) our very best enunciation or definition (of our intention), (4) our very best disposition or attitude, (5) our very best implementation or realization, (6) our very best effort or commitment, (7) our very best observation, reflection or evaluation and self-correction, and (8) our very best meditation or concentration towards an increasingly real experience of samadhi, which brings us to a yet better comprehension or insight, and so forth.

The Noble Eightfold Path in Advayavada Buddhism is fully personalized: it is firmly based on what we increasingly know about ourselves and our world, and trusting our own intentions, feelings and conscience. Adherence to the familiar Five Precepts (not to kill, not to steal, sexual restraint, not to lie, and refraining from alcohol and drugs) and a well-considered understanding of the Four Signs of Being and the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths suffice to start off on the Path at any time. Nirvana is, in Advayavada Buddhism, the total extinction of suffering as a result of our complete reconciliation with reality as it truly is.

The writer of these pages shares fully and wholeheartedly the Buddhist view that existence is a constant flux of ever-changing events with no known beginning or necessary end. As a serious student of the Madhyamaka theories of existence, particularly of the concepts of emptiness, interdependent origination and the two truths, he has come to understand the Noble Eightfold Path as an ongoing reflexion at the level of his own life of existence as a whole becoming over time. By learning to follow the Noble Eightfold Path successfully, he hopes to live every time more and more in tune with wondrous overall existence. For the Advayavadin, Nirvana is when we experience our own existence as being completely in harmony with existence as a whole becoming over time. In Buddhism, there is no static being, only dynamic becoming: to live is to become. And in Advayavada Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path is moreover seen, not as a means to become something in the future, but as a way to become as something in the here and now. The Noble Eightfold Path is seen as a proven autonomous method or ‘upaya’ to achieve the abandonment of all fixed views and to become oneself in the here and now as existence, as wondrous overall existence becoming over time now in its right direction. It is by becoming here and now as wondrous overall existence becoming over time now that we free ourselves altogether from suffering and realize complete happiness. In Advayavada Buddhism the Path is understood, in other words, as the sure road to enlightenment. See the Advayavada Study Plan (ASP) here.

The Pali word samma is usually rendered as ‘right’, but allow us to quote as follows from Prof. Archie Bahm’s Philosophy of the Buddha, first published 1958: “Each fold of the Eightfold Path is clearly labelled with the prefix samma. And sam means sameness, ambiguity, universality, equality, regarding willingness to accept things as they are.. Sam is middle-wayedness between over-acceptance and under-acceptance, between attachment to them as more than they are or less than they are. Translation of sam as ‘right view’ etc. fails to convey to most readers the ideal of equanimity which is then to be perfectly sought. […] The term ‘right’, although fitting better into the puritanic, rigoristic, and perfectionistic preconceptions of many Western translators, and into the perfectionistic (extinctionistic) tendencies of Theravada, is only slightly justified.” It is our view that it is only by following the Path in a non-prescriptive way that we shall eventually be able to come to understand the non-conceptual import of ultimate truth, and it was this explanation of the term samma by Prof. Bahm which a.o. prompted us to translate samma in Advayavada Buddhism as ‘very best’ or ‘best possible’. See also the short excerpt ‘The Path Understood Dialectically (Bahm)’ in the relevant excerpts section of this website.

In most other forms of Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path is indeed made up of eight largely unrelated factors, often of very differing content and interpretation, and always somebody else is telling you what to be and do. For Advayavada Buddhism, however, it is clear that the objective of the Middle Way devoid of extremes, the madhyama-pratipad, being the correct existential attitude expounded by the Buddha, is to reconnect and reconcile us with existence as it truly is beyond our (and most other people’s) commonly limited and biased personal experience of it. The Noble Eightfold Path is therefore understood dynamically as an ongoing reflexion at the level of our personal lives of existence as a whole becoming over time, of pratitya-samutpada. It is for this reason that the eight steps of the Noble Eightfold Path as advocated by Advayavada Buddhism do depend sequentially on each other, are free of any conventional criteria set beforehand by somebody else to which one is supposed to conform, and are fully ‘actual’ in the sense that they are not done for a further purpose or motive which is not in the step itself. The method created by the Buddha is, as we see it, like a wheel. It has no beginning and no end. When one has meditated well, new and better insight will arise in our minds, and we must lead our lives accordingly until we and the circumstances surrounding us have again changed, until it is time to think things through again, and to start afresh if necessary.

Also the Ven. Narada Mahathera understands the steps sequentially: “Right Understanding, which is the keynote of Buddhism, is explained as the knowledge of the four Noble Truths. To understand rightly means to understand things as they really are and not as they appear to be. This refers primarily to a correct understanding of oneself, because, as the Rohitassa Sutta states, ‘dependent on this one-fathom long body with its consciousness’ are all the four Truths. In the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Understanding stands at the beginning as well as at its end. A minimum degree of Right Understanding is necessary at the very beginning because it gives the right motivations to the other seven factors of the Path and gives to them correct direction. At the culmination of the practice, Right Understanding has matured into perfect Insight Wisdom (vipassana-pañña), leading directly to the Stages of Sainthood.. Clear vision or right understanding leads to clear thinking. The second factor of the Noble Eightfold Path is therefore Right Thoughts etc.” (Narada Thera, Buddhism in a Nutshell, first published 1933)

But Diana and Richard St Ruth, on the other hand, say the following in their Simple Guide to Theravada Buddhism, Folkestone 1998: “This [the Eightfold Path] is not a linear path, first perfecting one’s view about things before moving on to perfecting one’s intentions and speech and so on. It is a way of living one’s whole life. It is like saying: Try to live your life in the right way in everything you do. The word ‘right’ or ‘perfect’, of course, is a subjective term, and that is what it is meant to be. There is no definition laid down of what is right; it is not a set of rules. What may be regarded as right effort for one person, for example, may be quite different for another. It is a question of deciding for oneself whether enough effort is being put into what one does, or whether there is a sense of laziness, or of making too much of an effort. There is a delicate balance to be found between too much and too little, and this is something to be discovered for oneself. The eightfold path is a life; it is one’s whole way of life.”

It is not clear what is meant by ‘subjective’ in the aforegoing quotation from the Simple Guide to Theravada Buddhism. In Advayavada Buddhism, the term is used in this context in the Kierkegaardian sense and would not apply to all steps, but only to the noun ‘comprehension’ in the first step: the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path in Advayavada Buddhism would be in full ‘our very best (or best possible) subjective comprehension of things at this time’. See in this respect the short excerpt ‘Existential Thinking is Subjective (Kierkegaard)’ on the relevant excerpts pages of this website.

Also for the Ven. Walpola Rahula the Path is not sequential or linear. He does, however, teach unqualifiedly that the categories should be developed, not as we deem fit, but ‘as far as possible’ to the best of our ability: “It should not be thought that the eight categories or divisions of the Path should be followed and practised one after the other in the numerical order as given in the usual list above. But they are to be developed more or less simultaneously, as far as possible according to the capacity of each individual. They are all linked together and each helps the cultivation of the others.”

According to prof. Peter Harvey, in An Introduction to Buddhism, first published 1990, the eight factors exist in Theravada Buddhism at two basic levels, the ordinary and the transcendent or ‘holy’, so that there is both an ordinary and a Holy Eightfold Path. The first type, which “most Buddhists seek to practise”, only “supports actions leading to good rebirths” and is described as “belief in the efficacy of karma, the reality of rebirth, in the benefit of helping one’s parents, in the existence of levels of rebirth invisible to normal vision, and in the existence of virtuous religious practitioners who have direct knowledge of other worlds”. Practice based on such beliefs is seen as creating a good basis “for the additional development of wisdom”; if and when such practise is perfected, a person will gain a first glimpse of Nibbana and of “the ‘stream’ which leads there”, namely the Holy Eightfold Path. Prof. Harvey also states that the Path immediately leading up to becoming an arahat has two extra factors, right knowledge and right freedom, making it tenfold.

The Rider Encyclopedia reminds us that Bhavaviveka (ca. 490-570), the founder of the Svatantrika school of Madhyamaka, interprets the Eightfold Path as follows: perfect view is insight into the dharmakaya of the perfect one; perfect resolve represents the coming to rest of all mental projections; perfect speech is the recognition that speech is rendered dumb in the face of the dharmas; perfect conduct is the abstention from all deeds directed toward karmic gain; perfect living is the insight that all dharmas are without arising or passing away; perfect effort means becoming intentionless; perfect mindfulness means giving up pondering on being and nonbeing; perfect concentration means being free from opinions in that one does not grasp onto ideas.

John Peacocke tells us in Tricycle magazine that according to the British scholar Richard Gombrich, the Buddhist Middle Way is in fact the middle way between highly materialistic Brahmanism and excessively ascetic Jainism. It’s not just asceticism in general that the Buddha is reacting to, it’s the extreme asceticism primarily associated with the Jains, and, likewise, the household life and the strict and materialistic rituals of the Brahmins. Somewhere in between the two lies the Middle Way of the Buddha’s teachings.

Stephen Batchelor writes in his Confession of a Buddhist Atheist: “I no longer think of Buddhist practice solely in terms of gaining proficiency in meditation and acquiring ‘spiritual’ attainments. The challenge of Gotama’s eightfold path is, as I understand it, to live in this world in a way that allows every aspect of one’s existence to flourish: seeing, thinking, speaking, acting, working, etc. Each area of life calls for a specific way of practising the Dhamma. Meditation and mindfulness alone are not enough. Given the task of responding to the suffering that confronts me each time I open a newspaper, I find it immoral to relegate the demands of this life to the ‘higher’ task of preparing oneself for a postmortem existence (or non-existence). I think of myself as a secular Buddhist who is concerned entirely with the demands of this age (saeculum) no matter how inadequate and insignificant my responses to these demands might be.”